Monthly Archives: February 2014

Word from Kenneth Bae as North Korea cancels US envoy visit

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A State Department official said Sunday that North Korea had rescinded its invitation to the envoy, Ambassador Robert King, without giving a reason.

Hours later, the North’s state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) reported that former U.S. Ambassador to South Korea Donald Gregg had arrived in Pyongyang. The brief KCNA report Monday didn’t state the purpose of the visit by Gregg, the chairman of the Pacific Century Institute, a U.S. nonprofit group that aims to promote education, dialogue and research in the Pacific region.

State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki on Sunday expressed disappointment that Ambassador Robert King’s visit was called off and noted North Korea had said it wouldn’t use Kenneth Bae as a “political bargaining trip.” It is the second time North Korea has canceled a planned visit by King.

Bae says he is concerned that if his situation isn’t resolved soon, it could “drag on” for months longer. He notes that annual U.S.-South Korean military drills due to start later this month may deepen tensions in the region, as they did last year.

Bae also says he is worried about his health after authorities moved him back into a labor camp following a stay in a hospital. “I know if I continue for the next several months here, I will probably be sent back to the hospital again,” Bae says in a video of a conversation with a Swedish diplomat recorded Friday.

During the conversation, Bae discusses details of his health problems, as well as the minutiae of life in the labor camp.

He says he is suffering from back pain and neck pain, making the eight hours of manual labor he does each day “very difficult. I’ve been working with my hands a lot,” Bae tells the diplomat. “My hands all got numb and sore I have some cuts.”

But he says that he remains “strong mentally and spiritually, and I am trying to stay strong emotionally as well.” Bae tells the diplomat that he has access to books and television at the camp and that the staff there treat him “very fairly.”

The TV antenna stopped working for a couple of weeks recently, he says, allowing him to spend “more time with the Lord, with the Bible. That was actually a pretty good time for me,” Bae says.


North Korean defectors educate DMZ tourists

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Clara Park makes her living introducing her homeland to tourists from around the world. But instead of trumpeting its attractions like an ambassador, the wife of a former North Korean party cadre shares what it is like to live on food waste and work for no pay in the reclusive state.

The 48-year-old is one of four North Korean defectors now working for Panmunjom Travel Centre, the only agency that offers tourists a meeting with a North Korean defector on a visit to the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ). Tourists are seated on child-sized furniture in a mock classroom adorned with portraits of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, as a defector fields questions from the curious.

“Our defector staff have a sense of mission… They want to help bring about positive changes to their homeland,” says Kim Bong-ki, the agency’s owner. “That’s why they are sharing the reality in North Korea despite facing a certain level of danger.”

Park and her colleagues are part of a growing community of defectors who are increasingly vocal about the hunger and torture they experienced in North Korea.

Kim Ha-na, for instance, shared her odyssey while competing on the reality show Masterchef Korea. Lee Hyeon-seo made a mark at the global TED (Technology, Entertainment and Design) conference last year, sharing her struggle with identity issues.

“I see tourists as my messengers. I hope they will walk away with a better understanding of my pain, and tell the world on my behalf about the necessity of reunification,” Park says. “I strongly believe reunification is the only way to stop the North Korean tragedy.”

The cool-headed Park escaped from the North in 2011, after plotting her route for more than two years without her husband’s knowledge. “I could not bring this up with him … We think very differently,” Park said in response to a tourist’s question on why she had left without her husband. He has since been forced into early retirement, according to Park’s friends from the North.

It spurred her to set off on a grueling five-month journey to South Korea via China and Thailand, taking with her only her teenage daughter and rat poison – in case they got caught. Their courage paid off. After surviving three months of grilling by South Korea’s intelligence officers – a procedure to weed out potential spies – they were inducted into their new capitalist home, and have been coping well.

[The Straits Times/ Asia News Network]

U.S. Human Rights Envoy to Visit North Korea for Bae’s Release

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Yonhap News reports that the U.S. special envoy on North Korean human rights issues plans to visit North Korea to try to secure the release of jailed American Kenneth Bae.

Robert King plans to visit Pyongyang on Monday or later this month at the latest to consult with North Korean officials on the release of Kenneth Bae, according to the Choson Sinbo, a pro-North Korean newspaper in Japan.

The U.S. government, however, maintained its characteristically cautious approach toward the issue. Asked about the report at a press briefing, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said she has no new information.

“What I can provide to all of you has not changed, which is that we have long offered to send Ambassador King to North Korea,” she said. “That hasn‘t changed. Our focus here is on securing the release of Kenneth Bae. Because of that, we’re not going to outline every element of communication, every effort that’s underway.”

Bae told Choson Sinbo, a pro-North Korean newspaper in Japan, that he heard about King’s planned trip to Pyongyang from a Swedish diplomat.

The Swedish Embassy in Pyongyang serves as a protecting power for Americans in the communist nation. The United States has had no diplomatic relations with North Korea following the 1950-53 Korean War, which ended in a cease-fire, not a peace treaty.

The report came a week after North Korea’s ambassador to Britain, Hyun Hak-bong, said in a video interview that Bae would be freed when he finishes his prison term. “When he finishes his term according to the law, there is no reason not to release him,” Hyun said in the interview with Sky News, a 24-hour news channel in Britain.

Kenneth Bae now in North Korean labor camp

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American Kenneth Bae, who is being held in North Korea, has been moved from a hospital to a labor camp, the State Department said on Friday.

Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in a statement that the United States was “deeply concerned” by the development. “We also remain gravely concerned about Mr. Bae’s health” and again urge Pyongyang to grant him “special amnesty and immediate release on humanitarian grounds,” she said.

Bae, of Lynwood, Washington, was arrested in November 2012 in Rason, along North Korea’s northeastern coast. A devout Christian and father of three, Bae operated a China-based company specializing in tours of North Korea.

Last month, he told reporters that he had committed a “serious crime” in the secretive nation and that he had not experienced abusive treatment by the regime. Any statement by Bae in captivity would be sanctioned by the North Korean government.

Choson Sinbo — a pro-North Korean publication with offices in Tokyo and Pyongyang that has claimed to have interviewed Bae in the past — indicated in a report on its website Saturday that it had talked to him again. According to the site, Bae said he’d been at a labor camp for about three weeks, during which time he works and also has some time to watch television and read books.

Choson Sinbo claims that Bae has been told to expect a visit from Robert King, the U.S. special envoy for North Korean human rights issues, as early as this coming Monday. Department spokeswoman Psaki said late last month that the United States is “prepared to send Ambassador King” to North Korea to discuss Bae.


North Korean gulag torture methods

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Jung Kwang Il escaped from North Korea in 2004 after spending three years in the Yoduk gulag. He relates that North Korean gulag guards use a variety of torture methods. The one Jung endured was called the “pigeon” technique: Your two hands are tied behind your back, and you are chained to a wall in a manner that prevents you from either properly standing or sitting. Eventually, the backbone starts to almost force its way out the front of your body.

“There are no guards to hear you scream,” he says. Nor are there bathrooms. Sanitation consists of a worker coming by every few days to hose everyone down with a power spray.

In the summertime at Yoduk, workers are required to weed 1,100 square meters of farmland per day — with the 600g/day food allotment dispensed on a pro-rata basis: Finish half the job, and you get half the food.

“If a guard wants to kill someone ‘legitimately,’ it is very easy,” Jung says. “The worker is given work that he can’t finish, and then he gets less food, which makes him even less productive the next day, because he is starving. It sets off a [self-reinforcing] cycle of weakness and starvation. You can kill someone in two weeks through this method.”

During the winter, prisoners were put on firewood detail. Each was made to drag a tree about four meters long, and about 30 cm in diameter, a distance of four kilometers, up and down valleys, four trees per day.

To motivate a set of four workers, the guards would set out three rice cakes on a table, with the slowest worker arriving to an empty plate. It was a sort of horrible reality-show competition staged for the guards’ own entertainment.

Jung says he saw 60 or 70 people collapse and die on tree duty. Because the ground was frozen during the winter months, the corpses were thrown into a warehouse for burial in the spring. By that time, rats — or other, desperately hungry creatures who’d broken into the warehouse — had devoured much of them.

In summertime, inmates planted vegetables. The temptation to steal and eat the seeds was so intense that guards took the precaution of mixing them with ash and human waste before dispensing the seeds to prisoners. But many inmates are so hungry that they eat the seeds anyway, after doing their best to wash them. In this way, many who escaped death from starvation instead died from colitis and other waste-borne intestinal ailments.

US Congressmen appeal to Kim Jong-Un for Kenneth Bae release

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The last surviving members of the U.S. Congress to have served in the Korean War have sent a letter to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un asking him to release imprisoned American missionary Kenneth Bae.

“You have done the right thing by releasing a fellow Korean War veteran, Merrill E. Newman, to return home, you would be making further progress on the humanitarian front by freeing Kenneth Bae to reunite with his family,” stated a copy of the letter obtained by Reuters.

The congressmen, Democrat Charles Rangel from New York, Democrat John Conyers Jr. from Michigan, Republican Sam Johnson from Texas and Republican Howard Coble from North Carolina, are members of the House of Representatives.

kenneth bae North Korea January 2014
Kenneth Bae January 2014

Bae, 45, has been held for more than a year after being sentenced to 15 years of hard labor. North Korean authorities said the Christian missionary was trying to overthrow the state. Rangel invited Bae’s family to sit with him at President Barack Obama’s state of the union speech last month.

The letter was dated Tuesday and came as North and South Korea agreed to allow some families separated by the 1950-53 Korean War to hold brief reunions, despite a campaign by Pyongyang demanding that Seoul cancel planned war games with the United States.

In their letter, the four members of Congress urged Kim Jong-un to extend the reunion effort to Korean-Americans. “Nothing is more tragic than the separation of families and loved ones,” the letter stated. “We encourage you to also create a pathway to allow some 100,000 Korean-Americans to meet with their divided families in the (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) before too many pass away.”


Clues on Pyongyang power shifts from next month’s election

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North Korea confirmed Tuesday that leader Kim Jong-un will be a candidate in next month’s parliamentary elections. The results are a foregone conclusion, with only one approved candidate standing for each of the 687 districts.

The election — held every five years – is to take place on March 9. It will be closely watched for clues on power shifts in Pyongyang.

It will be the first under the leadership of Kim Jong-un and comes as he seeks to cement his grip on power after purging his uncle Jang Song-Thaek.

Kim Jong-un was “unanimously” nominated to stand for the Mount Paektu constituency number 111. Mount Paektu has divine status where, according to the North’s propaganda, Kim Jong-il was born on its slopes.


Only a crack of online freedom in North Korea

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North Korea knows it must enter the information age to survive in the global economy. And it opened that door just a crack recently for The Associated Press to reveal a self-contained, tightly controlled Intranet called Kwangmyong, or “Bright.”

Content? Restricted to the point that the use of Bright hardly even needs to be watched by officials.

Chats and email? Monitored.

How about the OS? It’s “Red Star,” now available in version 3.0, which looks a lot like the Microsoft operating system, but is used only in North Korea. There’s a Firefox-style search engine called “Our Country” that helps users navigate around an estimated 1,000 to 5,500 websites, mostly for universities, government offices, libraries and state-run corporations. Most North Koreans have no access to the Internet at all.

“The goal is to reap the benefits of information technology, while keeping out potentially corrosive foreign influences,” said Scott Bruce, a North Korea IT expert and analyst at the Arlington, Virginia-based nonprofit CRDF Global.

One of the first things an outside observer notices at Kim Il Sung University is that the students are actually studying. Not wasting time on Facebook or Reddit, no BuzzFeed. In fact, the sites they surf most likely aren’t even on the Internet, but on the North-Korea-only Bright.

“I haven’t had a time when I’ve been allowed to use the Intranet — since the point is that it is not open to foreigners,” said Will Scott, a computer sciences instructor at the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology who has worked about as closely with North Korea’s attempt to get wired as any other foreigner.

Through daily interactions with North Korean students at his university, however, Scott has been able to glean a general outline of what Bright is all about. “… This has a striking resemblance to the uses first made of the Internet in the U.S. when it was introduced in the ’80s.”

Technologically, he said, North Korea’s Intranet is a mini-Internet, with a combination of joint venture companies and vaguely government-affiliated labs that collectively maintain the core infrastructure that exists on the global Web. Graduate students and North Korean professors at the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology are allowed to access the real Internet from a dedicated computer lab, similar to the e-library at Kim Il Sung University. They receive the same speed and unfiltered access that foreign instructors do, although everyone’s access is monitored.

Students’ emails must be reviewed and approved by one of the vice presidents of the university before they can be sent, which, Scott said, means they rarely use email.

Some experts believe that as more North Koreans become familiar with the benefits of going online — a trend that would seem inevitable if North Korea is to keep afloat in the information age — it will become increasingly difficult for the ruling regime to keep the IT dam from bursting.


Shin Dong-hyuk a slave by birth

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Shin Dong-hyuk was born, in November 1982, at Camp 14, a kwan-li-so — a North Korean forced labor camp for “political prisoners,”  though he had committed no sin, except by North Korean standards.

Shin was there because he committed the crime of being the son of his father, whose two uncles fled to South Korea during the Korean War (1950-1953). By dictatorial fiat, that meant that the uncles’ relatives had to be imprisoned, isolated from the public, for three generations. He never asked his mother, Jang Hye Gyung, how she ended up in the camp — and she never told him why.

Unlike Jewish families in Europe who’d had lives before the Holocaust, Shin knew only Camp 14. He was, by his own account, not fully human. The camp is 30 miles long and 15 miles wide, about the size of the city of Los Angeles. His home was a one-story building shared by four families, where Shin and his mother had one room to themselves and slept next to each other every night on a concrete floor.

His primitive life taught him little beyond survival — Shin had no concept of love, compassion or morality. His mother was not his guardian — she was competition for food. For Jang, Shin was not a son to be loved and cared for — he was an impediment to survival. Shin would often eat his mother’s meals; it didn’t occur to him that she would go hungry as a result. When young, he would scrounge around the room as she worked the fields. If she came home to find that food was missing, she would beat Shin with a hoe or shovel, often severely.

Shin had an older brother, He Geun, but he barely knew him. When Shin was 4, He Geun moved out of the house — mandatory at age 12 — and into a dormitory near his worksite. Shin also had a father, Shin Gyung Sub, who lived in the camp but whom Shin also barely knew.

Shin’s parents’ “marriage” was arranged by the bo-wi-bu — as a reward to his father “for his skill in operating a metal lathe in the camp’s machine shop,” journalist Blaine Harden writes in “Escape From Camp 14.”  Aside from five nights per year when he could be with his wife, Shin’s father lived in a dormitory at the machine shop.

[Excerpts from Jewish Journal article authored by Jared Sichel]

Read more about Shin Dong-hyuk’s family